Harmonious Monks mix music genres with activist lyrics

(From left to right) Trevor Zemtseff, John Mietus, Evan Monroe and Cooper Holzman make up the Harmonious Monks. Photo courtesy of Harmonious Monks.

Don’t try to pigeonhole the Harmonious Monks as the newest jazz-hop renaissance band, the next conscious rap group, or the fun-loving party rockers. In reality, they are all three.

In a musical era when the lines between genres and styles are blurrier than ever, you could say the group fits right in, even if its music doesn’t subscribe to the trap-heavy sound driving much of mainstream hip-hop.

Evan Monroe, a junior majoring in psychology, goes by the stage name of Martin in his solo work. The ability to switch between topics is a major part of his philosophy on music.

“It’s important to have social commentary and be able to speak on those things with nuanced opinions,” Monroe said. “But experiential anecdotes, things that people can relate to in the everyday life, are things that I really want to give color to.”

There are plenty of schemes artists devise to add color to their music, but the Harmonious Monks do it best with what comes most natural to them: their personalities. High-energy, lighthearted and quick-to-clown, the band doesn’t take itself too seriously and makes it easy for its audience to do the same.

In addition to Martin, the emcee, the band is comprised of bassist John Mietus, a junior majoring in  classical bass; pianist and producer Cooper Holzman, a junior majoring in popular music; and drummer Trevor Zemtseff, a junior majoring in jazz studies.

“Trevor would want you to know he’s from Chicago; but then we would tell you he’s not actually from Chicago, he’s from Evanston,” Mietus said, drawing laughs from the other two as Zemtseff was absent from the interview. “Without him, though, this band would be crippled, because his contributions to the band as a composer, assistant producer and drummer … there’s just no comparison.”

The Harmonious Monks’ origin story dates back to their first weeks as freshmen at USC. Mietus was approached on the street by a random man who asked him if he played jazz, and instantly booked him and his nonexistent combo to play a show in two days. Eager to pull through, Mietus recruited Holzman from his residence hall and Zemtseff from his music theory class, and convinced them to perform with him at the show.

“I didn’t really give them a choice,” Mietus said. “I basically just said, ‘you’re doing this with me,’ I wasn’t missing out.”

Martin’s entry into the group came shortly after, following a vicious 2 a.m. rap battle against Mietus that formed a mutual appreciation between the two.

“It was literally neck and neck,” Monroe said. “Before that I had slain cats, but this was actually a challenge. The whole audience decided it was a draw, so we just kept freestyling and did a cypher, and people were losing it.”

Two years after discovering that instant chemistry, the Harmonious Monks are gearing up for the release of its debut album, Influence, on Friday. The album is socially conscious, designed to recognize how real-life experiences and people’s influence over one another contributes to their world views.

“There’s jazz drums mixed like metal drums, the bass is real, there’s a lot of synthesizers as well … it’s kind of this crazy mess of stuff that’s hard to even describe,” Holzman said. “I think our next album is going to be a lot more modern-sounding, but this one was very experimental.”

Martin’s background in alternative hip-hop, combined with the instrumentation that comes naturally to the jazz musicians, opened up a vast array of new directions in which the band memberscould take their music. “The Theory,” a single from the album that was released in July, brings all those musical elements to the forefront, backing the song’s vivacious lyrics and their fierce delivery.

The visual for the song, a finalist at the Los Angeles Music Video Festival, synced with the messages in the song as well as its three-act format, ending with the various characters being pelted by raisins from the sky as a reference to Langston Hughes “Harlem” poem.

When asked about the reasoning behind incorporating the dried fruit, Monroe mentioned how the link between black poetry and black music can form a powerful juncture.

“Weaving traditional black poetry into an art form like this, that’s a very potent mix that black artists have always used to try to make social commentary,” Monroe said. “Connecting those two, especially in the third verse where all those things are coming to a climax, it’s supposed to represent a culmination of those dreams, and ideas, and just the pouring rain of feelings that comes with having a marginalized black experience in the United States.”

While the message certainly matters, the Harmonious Monks feels it takes more than simply imparting knowledge through the music for the band to be most effective. Their infectious characters allow them to speak on real issues while refraining from “preaching” to their listeners.

“The end goal of all this is to entertain people,” Monroe said. “You can share messages with people and still be entertaining, but what’s going to solidify that message is the feelings they get while you give it to them.”